Homeless camps return as the snow recedes

Michelle Theriault Boots
A camp site along Muldoon Road at DeBarr Road is among those recently posted with eviction notices by the Anchorage Police Department. A packed tent was slumped over near an adjacent fire pit Wednesday.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Remnants of meals past litter the ground at a campsite along Muldoon Road near DeBarr Road. The site is east of Begich Middle School and Walgreens.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

In an empty lot at the corner of DeBarr and Muldoon roads, signs of an early spring at homeless camp sites are scattered on not-yet-green grass: a tent, an empty can of chili and a hand-lettered cardboard sign that reads "Jesus Was Homeless Too."

In Anchorage, May is the month when receding snowpack and rising temperatures bring some of the city's homeless population back to informal camp sites scattered through the greenbelts and forests of the city. But city officials think there may be fewer camps this summer, because of an ordinance that gives police the power to evict campers with notice and a new housing-first facility that has taken some of the most hard-core chronic alcoholics off the streets.

"This time last year, you could see the camp sites from the roads, there was so many of them," said Lt. Garry Gilliam of the Anchorage Police Department's Community Action Policing unit.

He estimated a peak of 200 camps throughout the city during the summer of 2011.

A 2009 city law allowed authorities to kick campers out of what the city describes as "illegal campsites" with as little as 12 hours of notice. After an American Civil Liberties Union legal challenge, the law was amended to require 15 days of notice before police could seize and dispose campers' belongings. Under some circumstances, camps can be cleared with only 72 hours notice under the law.

Last May, police swept through camps serving eviction notices. Because they'd been barred from clearing by a legal injunction, the camps had built up, Gilliam said.

No coordinated sweep is planned this year, he said, but eviction notices will be posted at camps based on complaints from the public.

"We should be able to do this with far less effort than we did last year."

It's still early.

"Most of the traditional camping spots we've worked on aren't occupied yet because of the thick snow pack," said APD Sgt. Mark Rein, who also works in the community policing unit.

Still, some are beginning to trickle back to familiar sites: Modest tarp-and-tent settlements are sprouting up in Fairview and Mountain View and at the DeBarr and Muldoon intersection.

Rein said the city has posted three notices warning campers that they need to move out or risk having their camp taken down.

His unit has been fielding a call or two a week about camp sites so far this spring. At the peak of last summer that number was more like 10 to 20, he said.

Karluk Manor, a controversial 46-unit Fairview housing-first program that gives chronic alcoholics an apartment as an alternative to homelessness while allowing them to continue drinking, opened in late 2011. Founders have argued that residents would otherwise be camping.

Meanwhile, shelters that faced overflow during the harsh winter are still operating over capacity, said Darrel Hess, the city's homeless coordinator.

"When I last spoke to Bean's Cafe they were still sheltering upwards of 100 people per night as an overflow for Brother Francis," he said.

Dewayne Harris, the manager of the Brother Francis Shelter, said that in April the shelter housed an average of 317 people each night. In 2011 the number was 230.

Hess said that may actually be a side effect of the ordinance. Last July and August, when the camps were being disrupted by the city, the shelter saw more traffic than usual as well.

"One of the goals of the ordinance was to get people into the shelter," he said.

Harris said there's no indication that the bump comes from a disinclination to return to camp.

"What we're primarily seeing is people struggling with underemployment or seasonal work that has not kicked off yet," he said.

With Brother Francis regularly maxed out, some are discussing whether it's time to open more emergency shelter space in the city, Hess said.

Another discussion: How to tackle the chronic lack of low-income housing that activists agree is a root cause of homelessness in Anchorage.

Some of the campers themselves say tough enforcement efforts won't deter determined campers.

"They'll just go farther back in the woods," said Jerry Olsen, a part-time construction worker in a baseball cap who is also known by the nickname "Two Dogs" for his devotion to his two now-departed pets.

Olsen, who was at a park at Tudor Road and Lake Otis with his girlfriend on the sunny Wednesday afternoon, said he had camped and lived in shelters but now had an indoor place to stay.

Campers face police eviction, robbery and violence, he said. He had recently fallen asleep in a park after eating lunch from KFC and had woken up to police ticketing him for trespassing.

It didn't seem fair because the police themselves could also often be seen eating lunch at the same park, he said.

His girlfriend Mabel had recently been robbed of a backpack.

"Camping is dangerous," he said. "I don't worry about bears and moose. I worry about people."

Nevertheless, the two would probably be spending some nights outside over the summer.

In a place as beautiful as Anchorage, he said, the lure of nights spent under the sky instead of a roof was hard to resist.

"We like the freedom," he said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Anchorage Daily News